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Textural Orientation

Madeleine Keesing's Paintings Thrive On Her Obsessive, Steady Hand

FIBER OPTICS: Keesing's "Sweet Dreams."

By J. Bowers | Posted 6/6/2007

Madeleine Keesing: Ashes and Embers

At Goya Contemporary through July 14

First things first--photographs do not do Madeleine Keesing's paintings justice. Nonrepresentational and deeply textural, Keesing's monumental blocks of variegated color have more in common with fiber art than the likes of Mark Rothko and the abstract expressionists, to whom she is often compared. Created by applying thousands of individual droplets of oil paint to a contrasting--or complementary--base coat of colors, working from the bottom of the canvas upward in parallel horizontal lines, Keesing's paintings are best appreciated in person, where you can vary the eye's distance from the canvas and allow yourself to be hypnotized by the all-consuming interplay of light and color. Occasionally, the base color in her canvases is readily evident; other times you must squint, first striving to separate background from foreground, then happily succumb to the blur.

The eight paintings and four drawings on offer in Ashes and Embers find Keesing exploring a reasonably wide range of variations on her signature style. Though obsessively repetitious by nature, Keesing's technique is never mechanical, consistently revealing evidence of the artistic process. "Sweet Dreams" is a diptych that reads as two interpretations of one basic color scheme--pink on purple--but Keesing's gift for tweaking each shade subtly, into salmon and lavender, makes for an intriguing pair of paintings. Hung flush against each other, each canvas is a mirror of the other.

"Ultra Blue," tucked away in Goya Contemporary's back room viewing space, is a deep meditation on the sea, a rippling, chameleonic field of blue wavelike daubs set against a cerulean colorfield. A lone strip of unstippled turquoise rests at the base of the canvas, grounding the piece, but as with Keesing's other pieces, the eye is not offered one clear entry point, one obvious path to take through the painting. While Keesing clearly owes a debt to colorfield painting, her work has a fluid, mobile quality not typically seen in simple washes of color. Slight, human variations in the size and arrangement of each bead of paint--and consequently, each line that spans her canvases--cause a unique and oddly soothing ripple effect.

In paintings like "Ultra Blue," it's easy to draw a parallel to the natural world; however, many of Keesing's works are simple, elegantly executed meditations on color--how it operates, how it changes based on light, texture, and juxtaposition with other shades. "Embers," a red on black composition, finds Keesing's obsessive daubs of paint slowly and slightly curving as they make their way across the painting. The stratified interplay of red and black, with some lines rendered more thickly than others, draws the eye back and forth across the expanse, drawn first to brighter patches of red, and then seduced by dark, impenetrable pockets of black.

"Gift From Prometheus" is a sunny, eye-searing study in various shades of orange, while a woefully untitled piece layers metallic gold atop yellow and blue, creating an effect akin to the throws countless great-aunts crochet using scraps of yarn from the rag bag. Whether or not this effect is desirable is up for debate, but Keesing's clothlike command of texture is to be commended.

"Hot" is subtler than its title implies. Using beach ball stripes of sky blue, yellow, and other shades as her background, Keesing covers the entire canvas with thick red blobs, creating an oppressive, overwhelming visual effect that makes the title seem like a perfect fit.

Despite Keesing's gift for color--refreshing in an era when many painters shy away from heartstopping reds, oversaturated yellows, and bold, brassy oranges--her most compelling work, "Elegy," is primarily off-white. Here, without the distracting effects of color, you can fully appreciate the way the cuts and dents in the paint, introduced by Keesing's additive technique, manipulate and distort the gallery's ambient light. The shine of the oil paint gives the work a moist quality, and the endless expanse of white on white makes the canvas appear to vibrate.

Ashes and Embers also affords a rare look at Keesing's less-celebrated ink on paper works, which, frankly, pale in comparison to her paintings. Echoing the obsessive, repetitive nature of her painting technique, her four small untitled drawings have a crosshatched quality, as curlicues and intersecting lines overlap ad infinitum, creating an impenetrable tangle of lines.

There are hints of Aboriginal dream paintings, pottery, and weaving in Keesing's work, and a fluidity rarely seen in oil works. In less skilled hands, her methodical, obsessive-compulsive technique might quickly become same-y and unpleasantly repetitious, but Ashes and Embers offers more than enough variation, both in color and size, to make the process continually intriguing.

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